U.S. ethanol exports down from 2011, imports continuing

By Holly Jessen | December 17, 2012

The latest data on ethanol exports and imports released by the U.S. Census Bureau show that, through October, U.S. ethanol exports are at 643.3 million gallons. Ethanol imports are, however, gaining ground, with nearly 390 million gallons of ethanol imported in the same time period.

The U.S. became a net importer of ethanol for the first time this year in August, when 109.8 million gallons of ethanol was imported, Geoff Cooper, vice president of research and analysis for the Renewable Fuels Association reported in October. That compared to August’s U.S. ethanol exports of only 50.2 million gallons, the lowest export number since November 2010. The numbers for September were even more striking, with ethanol imports reaching twice the amount exported. A total of 49.4 million gallons of U.S. ethanol was exported that month, compared to imports of 105.7 million gallons.

Looking at the year-to-date numbers, Cooper predicted total exports of 772 million gallons by the end of the year. On the import side, the implied annual total was 468 million gallons. “Notably, the 2012 RFS2 advanced biofuel standard calls for 490 million gallons of ‘undifferentiated’ advanced biofuel and imported sugarcane ethanol can be used for compliance,” he said.

This year’s lower export numbers follow record exports in 2011. More than 1.19 billion gallons of U.S. ethanol was exported last year, three times the 396 million gallons exported in 2010. In other words, although exports are down from 2011, exports are actually up from 2010.

In 2011, Brazil was the leading destination for exported U.S. ethanol, with 33 percent of total shipments going there. This year, however, Brazilian sugarcane ethanol is increasingly ending up in the U.S. In December, 56.2 million gallons of ethanol were imported to the U.S. from Brazil, while the remaining 16.2 million gallons came from Caribbean Basin Initiative countries Jamaica and El Salvador. The ethanol shuffle, or Brazilian ethanol being imported to the U.S. while U.S. corn ethanol is exported to backfill demand in Brazil, was not unexpected.

As a side note, the Census Bureau changed the way it reported U.S. ethanol exports this spring. Previously, it was reported in two categories, denatured ethanol and undenatured ethanol, non-beverage use. In April, Cooper reported that was expanded to four categories, including denatured ethanol, for fuel use; denatured ethanol, for use other than fuel; undenatured ethanol, for fuel use; and non-beverage undenatured ethanol, for use other than fuel.